What It’ll Be Like To Use Android Smartwatches

Google promised software for wearables computers, and it didn’t disappoint.

Today Google announced Android Wear, its platform for smartwatch and wearable technology development. While Google has not yet released the full software development kit (SDK) for Android wearables, we can get a good sense of what Android smartwatches will be capable of by digging into the principles in the developer preview.

Pick A Card

See also: 5 Key Points From Google’s Wearables Strategy

Android Wear user interface will be based on cards. Cards are applets (smaller versions of full smartphone or tablet apps) that deliver only the most relevant information for that app. Different app cards will be stacked on top of each other on an Android Wear device and users navigate between them by swiping up and down on the watch.

To navigate to actionable items within a card app, users will swipe horizontally. For instance, if I am taking an American Airlines flight from Boston to San Francisco, the card may pop up telling me that my flight is ready for check-in. To perform the check-in, I will swipe right on the Android Wear device and tap check-in. 

Cards will have images in the background to differentiate between which applets are in use and what actions are being performed. So, if I get a message from my boss about a meeting in one card, I can have an image associated with messaging in that card. If I swipe down to my calendar, I can have a time related image in that card. If I swipe right within that calendar, I can confirm the meeting and so forth.

Contextual, Ambient & On Demand

Android Wear devices will be completely aware of its users surroundings and be able to deliver two types of notifications through apps: contextual and on demand. Google calls these “Suggest” cards.

See also: With The Moto 360 And LG G, The Android Smartwatch Army Is On The March

Contextual apps use an Android wearable’s sensors combined with those of a smartphone to deliver information based on what the user is doing. This is totally congruent with Google Now, the Google service that attempts to anticipate what a user is doing, wants to do or intends to search for in the near future.

For instance, today I went to a meeting and I looked up the address for it before I left the house. On my Android smartphone, Google knew that I searched for the address and already had a Google Now card queued up with directions and navigation to the meeting.

The contextual stream in Android Wear will be able to perform a lot of these same types of functions by reading the user’s location and state and delivering information that just shows up on the watch without necessarily creating a vibrating notification. The information is just there ready to be glanced at on the watch.

Demand cards are the opposite of contextual cards. These cards are present on the device, but have to be called up by the user either by touching the device or speaking instructions to it. They can include Android “intents” that call up a specific action, like making a phone call, sending a text message, getting specific directions, listening to music and so forth. These cards don’t necessarily deliver ambient information like the contextual cards do, but are intended to support something specific the user presumably wants to do.

Notifications, Pages & Actions

The easy part about Android Wear is that developers don’t necessarily need to create entirely new applications, or even to reconfigure how their existing Android notifications work on a wearable device. Notifications in Android Wear are based on Android’s existing notification system, and will be shared between the smartphone and the wearable.

By contrast, Samsung, which chose to use its Tizen operating system for its new Gear smartwatches, offers developers a much more complicated task. Gear requires developers to create two separate applications (one for Android, one for Tizen) and then share information back and forth through a Samsung-specific protocol. 

In Android Wear, developers can build additional functionality into their notifications, such as the ability to respond via voice input or add additional pages. The notification can let the user take specific actions—for instance, by pressing “Reply” after receiving a message.

Google’s design principles call for all notifications to be glanceable—that is, short and to the point—by default, but also give developers and users the option to expand the message. So, an email may pop up on the Android Wear device but only a truncated version of the headline. You may say “read message” or tap on the screen to expand what is in that email.

Stacking Cards

By definition, a smartwatch has limited space. But all those notifications that you normally get to your smartphone need to go somewhere. In Android Wear, they will get stacked on top of each other. Say you’re conducting several different conversations in WhatsApp. Those notification cards will stack on top of each other in Android Wear, and you’ll swipe to dismiss them or respond.

If you’re in an email conversation, multiple messages from one email thread will go into the same stack as opposed to creating entirely new cards. This could also be done with voice input if the developer has set up that option in Android Wear. 

Each app will have its own stack. That way users shouldn’t get overwhelmed by a jumble of disorganized messages sitting on top of their smartwatch. This is one of the downfalls of the Qualcomm Toq interface where notification message cards are stacked on top of each other regardless of which applet is sending them. 

All images and video courtesy Google and Android Developer website

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